Miroslav Holub (1923–1998) is one of the most internationally well-known Czech poets. He led a career as a scientist, and his poetry is known for its sharpness and wit, as well as descriptions of aging and suffering.
The following heretofore unpublished interview with Miroslav Holub was conducted in August 1994 in Prague. At the time, interviewer Irene Honeycutt was a participant in the Prague Summer Writer’s Workshop on the campus of Central European University, where Dr. Holub was the poet-in-residence.
You mentioned that Jacques Prevert had the most influence on your poetry when you were young. Please talk about that influence and how sustaining it is for your writing now.
Miroslav Holub: I was brought up with French poetry and enchanted by Saint-Pol-Roux, Tristan Corbiere, Apollinaire, Supervielle, Prudhomme, even more than by Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire. But when I discovered Jacques Prevert in the 50s, I was more than enchanted: I understood! I realized that poetry may be not only a state of mind, but also the state of the world reflected in an event. Prevert was for me an assurance that I might be able to write poetry. Since that time, I haven’t needed any more assurances. I simply think that I write poetry, although …
During your lecture the other day at the Prague Workshop, you stated that you believe in the poetry of action (the event), not the poetry of silence. Within that context you alluded to “the poetry of the little pin.”
Human language has been created and exists to report about events, not on neuroses and endocrinological disorders. Politics is about swords, bombs, famines, millions of dead and billions of living. Poetry is about little pins, because you can imagine and feel the singularities, not the global phenomena.
As for “poetry of silence,” I use it in reference to our present literary jargon, where it means a soft-spoken text on the warm interior of a poet’s soul. In a broader sense, all poetry aims for silence between and after the words. In my view poetry should use a minimum of words for a maximum of conceived silence.
Isn’t there also some basis for the creative impulse that springs from the need to express one’s emotions, to celebrate astonishments, to praise, to lament? The freedom to express one’s self, not always contained within a “report about events”? I’m thinking of Robert Frost who said that every poem he wrote solved something for himself. He spoke of the process of writing poetry as giving order to inner and outer chaos.
I agree about the creative impulse (to lament, especially), but this has nothing to do with intro- or extroversion. One reports on that event which is the closest representation of your mind, emotion, feeling. As to Frost, I would refer to our life experience: in the general messy scene, poetry is the last resource of order. In an established human, sociological, political order, poetry is the source of doubt, disbalance, and unpredictability. With all due respect, I am not sure that Frost and his followers ever knew what is the real mess from horizon to horizon.
And what is meant by the “general messy scene”?
The real mess from horizon to horizon means a mess from the household—plumbing and getting washing powders up to the illiterate administrators of human affairs.
Not to belabor this, I just want to be sure that I understand your intent. Muriel Rukeyser said that every poem is a political act. The very act of writing is a stance, isn’t it? An affirmation, even. Or, to quote Frost again, “a momentary stay against confusion.”
Every poem is a political act in the state of society when even love is. In the case of poetry, the question is that of the intention. In a good fat totalitarian system, you know that praising a beautiful woman is a form of disdain of the ugly Brezhnev and that most readers will understand this.
I am left wondering if in your valuing the poetry of event, you limit the range of poetry. What about Blake’s “grain of sand” and Tennyson’s “flower in the crannied wall”? Can’t a poem exist just for its own sake?
Poems as expressions of “states of mind” and poems as “little dramas” are not literary categories. The poem for its own self does not exist at all, it just rots on the immense shelves of national libraries. If I ever feel a desolation and desperation, it’s in an old castle or in monastery libraries where philosophers’ and poets’ words are waiting for 600 years for a single human eye—and this will never appear, nevermore. Not even a raven!
In your own country, you became a “non-person” between 1970-1982. Your books then were only available in translation. Did the fact that your writing was so well received in other countries provide you with some measure of security, both personally and professionally?
Of course! I was even instructed by Western diplomats to publish abroad as much as possible. Technically, to publish abroad was officially impossible; but in Czechoslovakia it was well understood that “impossible” is an obsolete word. Just try. Or, just dare!
Why do you call “the Poetry of Silence” a “Czech disaster”?
Poetry of Silence was a way of protest, never accepted by the Communist establishment, which understood Silence even less than Words and Dramas. The question of the Poetry of Silence is a long-standing national issue, and my objection to it is also because it is long standing.
In your lecture last week at the Prague Summer Writers’ Workshop, you raised the question: does the poem of satisfaction exist?
And Josef Skvorecky made a similar statement in his lecture.
Yes. He began that lecture with the comment that “it has been observed that happy people are artistically sterile,” which brought much laughter from the audience.
It is weird, but in the last two centuries the bulk of what is being written is about dissatisfaction, about want, about losses. Why? Because—with the exception of professional melancholics—we have our joys, our small gains, our little victories; so it follows that we have other ways of how to publicize them or advertise them. A poem became a tool of complaint that the soup is not salted. (There is a Czech pun about a boy who doesn’t speak until at age five he finds his soup disgusting!) I don’t like soups, in general; but I think that the habit of gloomy poetry is very funny. It’s like a special competition in losing.
Have the conditions for poetry greatly improved in the Czech Republic since 1989?
No. In an almost normal state of society, the space for poetry is very narrow.
I was moved by Ivan Klima’s description of what it was like for him as a dissident writer under the Communist regime. He spoke of the underground publishing network, the scarcity of paper, the difficulty of getting manuscripts typed, etc. Only a few copies of the writer’s work could be typed at an underground workshop. But for me, the most important thing and the most hopeful thing he said was that books were being circulated. Within 30 days, a typed manuscript would be read by 30 people. Was a similar network taking place among dissident poets?
Poetry appeared also in samizdat (clandestine). A print-out of my book Brief Reflections had to be destroyed in 1970 in Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel (an official publishing house). I think, however, that poetry in samizdat was less frequent than prose. This, though, was an advantage: we had something and somebody to blame and to hate. What and whom has a poor young published poet who makes 30 Xerox copies for his friends and who lives on social security in San Francisco or New York to blame?
Were you ever interrogated for being a writer? Did the Communists try to “court you” into their camp?
I was interrogated by the police as a scientific worker, never as a writer. It was scary, since it followed my disclosure of a secret biological warfare project to a British colleague (not that I was audacious; I was simply friendly and found it impossible to lie). Also in the laboratory, I was once asked to join the Party. (I was the only non-Party member—feeling like a mentally retarded child among all the bright Party members). But I already had the mental retardation as a life role and simply said that I don’t agree with the cultural policy of the Party. This should have been obvious after some surrealistic incidents which I had with the cultural bosses over the years because of my writing. Only recently did I hear that “my volume” (i.e., report on me, etc.) was the biggest in the Party secretariat in Prague 4.
Klima said that, according to the critics, his best work was written in Czechoslovakia while he was oppressed. Is it too early to say how you sense your own writing being affected by the freedom of the last few years (since 1989)?
I am one of the few not affected. I still resist the pressure of stupidity, only now it is not the administration I oppose. It’s the mighty irrational anti-scientific, uneducated underground which grew overground within the last few years.
You referred to yourself the other day as “a mouse doctor.” How does science inform your writing?
I don’t think science can inform poetry. Practicing science just presupposes a hard-centered approach to any object, including the language. Science presents a firm ground for all personal feelings, a sort of safe existential ground. A scientific worker writing poetry does not see (perceive, feel, sense) the abyss. He is not happy, but he is less desolate and, in many instances, also less neurotic. There is no real distinction in being a poet and a scientist. It is all really part of being human.
Yet, what compels you to write poetry, not just non-fiction and scientific papers?
As I said in an essay, for 95% of my lifetime I was and am a passer-by, a driver, a lover, a father, a (bad) serviceman, an offender, a shopper, a shadow, and a player. Realizing that, one is compelled to write poetry to save that last 5%.
Would you mind stating your feelings about whether there is such a thing as a “global voice”?
I would mind. I don’t know. I just learned something about general and special anatomy, about physiology and about immunity. There is no global pathology or immunology. Our feeling is that the humanists and literary theorists, or even poets, get from time to time elegant ideas, which are just ideas.
I heard Mark Strand speak at Duke University several years ago on the question of a common language. He said he did not believe there was one. As I recall, he felt that what unites us is our mortality. And it is his sense of mortality that makes him want to play hard with language. Do you concur?
I am glad to know that Mark Strand, whom I like a lot on the personal and literary level, says the same thing. Mortality, better to say, the awareness of death, joins us all—from Roman slaves to post-modernist philosophers; but the reaction is variable, especially among the philosophers. Very variable in time and space. The attitudes of a European or American in the last centuries are basically different from the attitudes of the aborigines anywhere. I have no idea what language has to do with terminal pneumonia or brain edema. I have seen many people brought back from the gate of something (heaven, hell) by transplantation or antibiotics, not by incantations. There is a basic difference between consolation and survival.
In your book of essaysThe Dimension of the Present Moment, you wrote: “I strongly resent lyricism as adhesive tape over the mouth. But there are moments when lyricism does reach further, beyond the ‘better.’”
In that essay it is precisely what I felt at the moment. The reason? The situation of a child that would overcome a heavy and bloody intervention of one type of cancer, only to succumb five years later to a sarcoma. That is the realm of the unspeakable for me.
Your poems have been praised for their precision, their irony, for the sudden hope that surprises—even for their poignancy. Great risk in that. How to strike the balance? Any thoughts for aspiring writers on how to achieve this?
Seamus Heaney said that my system is “the fully exposed poem.” My feeling is that I simply don’t like to wear dark glasses at night and during a blackout. The condition for this system is that you have enough “ideas” and do expose just the poem, not yourself. Basically, we are here to write (or record) consistently well what we think and not to rely on the abominable principle: Perhaps-They-Will-Not-Notice.
May I quote from an interview with [Czech poet] Jaroslav Seifert? He said, “All language can be thought of as an effort to achieve freedom, to feel the joy and the sensuality of freedom.” He also says that as he grew older he discovered “sensuality.” How does your poetic credo differ or coincide with Seifert’s? And, as you have grown older, what have you discovered?
My experience is that it is a lot better to discover sensuality in real (unrecorded) life than in poetry. So to say, it’s a lot better to play tennis (as Nezval says, rhyming with penis) than to write poems about tennis. That’s my thinking and feeling. But whenever I was deeply in love, I used to recite Seifert’s poems! His are the only poems which I know by heart in great numbers. In essence, I am here because of many other poets. I am not alone. I don’t like to be alone, and I detest being looked to as a prophet, an apostle, or a roaring lion. I am just a man in the row trying to decipher the row.
A popular literary topic now in the United States is whether the poet has a moral responsibility. What do you feel about poetry and “the ethical imagination”?
Generalizations are misleading. I am not sure that all the glorious statements about poetry refer to the same thing. The “high ethical imagination” of some poets needs badly a profane counterpart. In our history we have a good example of Jaroslav Vrchlicky who wrote highly spirited and most noble poems and, in private, very obscene verses. He had syphilis, anyway. Poetry can prevent evil from happening merely by the fact that when writing or reading a poem one cannot mug somebody—for technical reasons!
What do you do for fun?
I do everything for fun! After writing a scientific paper, a poem is fun; and after an aborted poem, looking into the microscope and seeing at least something is great fun. And after intellectual efforts (aimless, usually) sports and games are the most important fun. Fun is good against hypertrophy of the prostate and against hypertrophy of the soul.
You have been most generous with your time and energy. I would like to end this interview with a fantasy. Suppose you could invite three poets—living or dead—to your home for conversation over dinner. Whom would you invite? And then, what “burning question” would you ask of them?
I hate conversations over dinner. Why spoil a dinner with intellectual discourse? It’s like reading a poem immersed in a shrimp cocktail. I would like to meet once more Vasco Popa (which is impossible, sort of), Zbigniew Herbert, and Ted Hughes. But I hope we would not produce any literary noises. As I have written in a recent poem, “Isn’t the magic of Orpheus due to the fact that most of the time he keeps his trap shut?”
About the interviewer: Irene Blair Honeycutt’s most recent poetry manuscript, Before the Light Changes (Main Street Rag Publishing, 2008), was one of two finalists in the 2009 Brockman-Campbell Book Award Contest, an award given annually for the book of poetry judged to be the best published by a North Carolinian in the preceding year. An award-winning poet, she has published poems in numerous anthologies and national journals, including Nimrod, Asheville Poetry Review, Cold Mountain Review, Southern Poetry Review, Pembroke Magazine, Devil’s Millhopper, Croton Review, Crucible, The Arts Journal, and St. Andrews Review.